Keep your hands to yourself

June 21, 2001
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Everyone can relate to the need for protecting our hands. We’ve all had blisters, miscues with a hammer, finger cuts, or maybe even fractures at work or at home. No matter what product you make or service you provide, at some point hand protection will be required. If you don’t believe that your hands and fingers are important, try working without them.

Here are five tips for protecting your hands:

1. Know the hand hazards of your workplace. Review your medical reports or OSHA 200 log to find trouble spots. Employee complaints can identify problems before they turn into injuries. Are injuries or complaints occurring in one department? Doing one procedure? If there are a number of minor injuries, what is the potential for a serious injury? Have you just been lucky?

2. Assure OSHA compliance. OSHA 1910.138 is the standard on hand protection. It says that employers shall select and require employees to wear appropriate hand protection when their hands are exposed to hazards. The hazards named are: absorption of harmful substances, chemical burns, severe cuts, lacerations or abrasions, punctures, thermal burns and harmful temperature extremes.

OSHA recommends that you walk around and look for these hazards. This is not a bad idea. You might have forgotten something, or someone could have moved something new in on you.

You should also be familiar with other OSHA regs that can impact hand protection, such as lockout/tagout, machine guarding and walking-working surfaces. This will do more than keep the OSHA wolfman from your door — it will also protect you from unforeseen events. OSHA standards are based on events that have occurred sometime, someplace. Often the worst injuries are the ones we never imagined would happen.

3. Check the charts. Gloves come in a cornucopia of types suited for general or specific uses. There are abrasion/cut-resistant gloves, chemical-resistant gloves, clean-room gloves, anti-vibration, general-purpose, leather and temperature-resistant gloves.

Lucky for us most safety supply catalogs come with charts to help pick out the right glove. Some contain a glossary of glove terms. The chart I enjoy most is the one that tells which grade of leather comes from which area of the animal hide, and what type of leather is suitable for specific uses.

If you work around chemicals, the chart you’ll most likely use focuses on chemical resistance. Some charts will indicate whether a specific glove material, such as latex rubber or nitrile, is recommended for certain chemicals. More advanced charts will specify the manufacturer and model name of a recommended glove, along with its breakthrough time.

Breakthrough time refers to how long it takes (under laboratory conditions) for a chemical placed on the outside of the glove to be detected within the glove. This test requires equipment most of us do not have. Also, the key phrase is “laboratory conditions,” a state most of our factories or work sites will never meet.

In situations where protection is extra critical, such as working around benzene, you need to institute very strict guidelines on changing gloves well before the listed breakthrough time occurs. Guidelines would include hand washing procedures whenever the gloves are taken off or if there is a hint of exposure.

4. Inspect before reusing. Should you reuse gloves? It’s not the best practice, but there are times, such as when gloves are very expensive, that you have little choice. When this is the case, you need to pay attention to decontamination and inspection.

As a matter of fact, if gloves protect against serious injury or health hazards such as bloodborne pathogens, inspect them before initial use. Make sure whatever gloves you receive are what you ordered. Inspect the seams and look for cracks or tears. To find holes, inflate the glove and roll it toward the fingers. Or you can inflate and hold the gloves under water.

If you have to reuse a pair of gloves, turn them inside out and look for discoloration, swelling, stiffening or anything else that would indicate chemical presence on the inside. What you’re looking for is permeation. The worry is that while decontamination got rid of the chemical on the outside of the glove, part of the chemical was already absorbed into the material of the glove. This can happen while gloves are being stored between use.

5. Set handling procedures. Even the best gloves will not prevent amputations or crushing injuries to fingers or hands. In situations like these you’ll need strict enforcement of procedures for material handling and lockout, just to name two safety issues.

Team lifts — manual lifting of any heavy object by more than one person — need to be explained to your workers. Before you lift a heavy load, decide where you are going to take it, the route to get there and who will make the calls as it is set down. Does anything have to be moved out of the way before you start to carry it? Most people give little thought to this simple stuff, but thinking ahead will save hands, as well as backs, when it comes to lifting and carrying jobs.

Manhole covers are an example of an object that requires specific handling procedures. Slide the covers off the manhole. Don’t lift them off, and certainly don’t set them up on their edge. This makes them like the jaws of a trap.

In general, check anything that has to be moved or handled by hand for sharp, jagged or rough edges — any hazard that could hurt hands.

Finally, how is the personal hygiene of your employees? Not sure? Better have a follow-up inspection after glove use to check for small nicks and cuts. You don’t want someone to risk an infection.

Sidebar: Still have the scar

While working for a municipality once, I helped an older maintenance man look for a gasoline leak in a sewer line. We checked a raised manhole with a concrete lid. I knew lifting that lid off was wrong, but I deferred to the experience of the maintenance vet.

I remember thinking, "When we get this thing back on, I'll tell him that the correct way is to slide it off and on." We almost had it back on, almost had it seated, when his strength gave out and he lost his grip. The tip of my middle left finger got caught as the concrete lid slammed down. The finger got fractured, and I still have a scar from a blood blister that formed. My finger throbbed whenever my heart beat. My co-worker said he was sorry, of course.

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